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Pulitzer Winner Elizabeth Strout on Her New Novel, The Burgess Boys

Photo: Leonardo Cendamo

The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout’s follow-up to her 2008 Pulitzer Prize–winning book Olive Kitteridge, follows two brothers who’ve returned to their hometown to help their sister manage her troubled son. Strout set the psychologically rich story in Maine’s Shirley Falls, the same fictional hamlet she imagined in her 1998 debut, Amy and Isabelle — only this time she explores how the state’s growing population of Somali immigrants is impacting the community. Strout spoke with Vulture about Maine’s lack of diversity, writing post-Pulitzer, and novels in the iPhone age.

Junot Díaz, also with you in the Pulitzer winners club, has said he imagined he’d have twenty books by now, then realized it’s a lot slower and tougher than that. Do you get frustrated with your pace?
It seems to me that I should be able to be faster, at this point, having been writing all my life. I feel some frustration about that, but it doesn’t seem to be anything I can help.

This is your first book since you won the Pulitzer. Jennifer Egan got it two years after you, for A Visit From the Goon Squad, and she recently wrote about the pressure she was feeling about her follow-up. She wrote, “You’re going to hate the next [book]. The whole world’s going to hate the next one. I have no idea why this one got so much love. Can you relate?
Well, I certainly sympathize with what she’s saying there. I think that when I’m working, which is a lot, I’m really just so involved in the work that I don’t think about that. But often when I’m not working — when I look up, let’s say — then I think, Oh, man. People are gonna be mad because it’s not Olive, and … But the fact of the matter is I always have a really high sense of responsibility to the reader, whether it’s a few readers that I get or a lot of readers, which I was lucky enough to get with Olive. I feel responsible to them, to deliver something as truthful and straight as I can. And so I don’t remember that there was a whole lot of excessive worry about the post-Pulitzer thing, but I look back now and think there must have been and I was just submerging it or something, or just putting in the work.

There’s a heavy research element to this story.
I thought, I’m going to make the decision to take on a Somali point of view. So in order to make it real, I had to, first of all, know everything I could about the Somali population that’s here. I began, years ago, reading the history of their country, the history of their civil war, and reading all about the camps in Kenya, then gradually finding different avenues to actually speak to or listen to Somali people who had come into this country and were in this situation, and to speak to people who worked with them. That took a long, long time.

I’m also from Maine, and the viewpoints I tend to encounter about the Somali immigrants seem so one-sided.
It’s so tiresome, and it’s not interesting, and it’s not real when people are that polarized. That’s not really human. So I was very interested in making sure this book had no agenda.

Are you interested in explicitly representing Maine, or is it more of a general dialogue about having roots in any American small town?
It is small town, but it is also Maine. Maine has a distinct something. I do come from … both sides, my mother’s and my father’s, go back so many generations, and it’s something that they’re deeply proud of. And it’s something that I’m sorry doesn’t interest me that much. It made me like a traitor. But that is the way of the world — there’s still a lot of people in Maine that are staying there, but not nearly as many are because, economically, there’s nothing there. So in a way I’m very interested in writing about Maine, because I think Maine represents its own kind of history. It’s the oldest state, and it’s the whitest state. In that way it’s kind of representative of everything that’s changed in this society, the changes that have taken place more quickly in other parts. But also the small-town aspects could be anywhere — there are many, many mill towns all around the country that have been defunct for 30 years.

Do you know what’s next yet?
Not quite. I’m sketching.

Are you still writing by hand?
Yes, I do write by hand. I just think — I don’t know, it’s a physical thing for me. It’s a bodily thing. It literally has to earn its way through my hand.

Your work has a deliberate, sometimes leisurely pace. As someone who writes things that demand a reader sit patiently for hours, do the Internet and fragmented attention spans concern you?
If there’s a voice that you want to listen to, you will listen to it, even if you don’t have a great attention span anymore. But I do worry about that, yes, I do. I see constantly around me, and of course it makes me feel so old, but I think, Wow, people really don’t concentrate. But then I think, That’s okay. I’m writing for the person who will receive it. And that’s always been my theory, ever since I was first writing, which was like a hundred years ago. I’m writing for my ideal reader, for somebody who’s willing to take the time, who’s willing to get lost in a new world, who’s willing to do their part. But then I have to do my part and give them a sound and a voice that they believe in enough to keep going.

Talking With Pulitzer Winner Elizabeth Strout